Like many other signposts of maturity, I knew if I lived long enough, my hearing would diminish and I’d need some help. But my male vanity was hesitant. “I can get by without hearing everything,” my inner stubborn voice muttered. But recently I decided to man up. I made an appointment at Costco to have my hearing checked this past Monday.
The technician hooked me up for a series of tests. After 30 minutes, he gave me the assessment.
“You do have some hearing loss, but it’s in the mild to moderate range,” he said. “It’s focused on one specific area.” He printed out the graph and wrote a note on it:
“It’s not diminished enough to sell you hearing aids,” he said. “If it gets worse, come back, but otherwise, plan to check back in two or three years.”
As I walked out, I felt relieved.
Later in the day, I was looking at the chart and began imagining the symbolic possibilities in his note. Beyond the physical act of hearing, maybe it’s a useful metaphor for not “listening” to voices in our midst.
Hearing is the physical act of our ears receiving sound vibrations. Listening involves giving conscious attention to what our ears hear.
For instance, we can certainly recognize how much our society has not listened to women’s voices over the centuries. They’ve been there all along, but only recently are they being heard.
Along with women’s voices we could add black voices, a deficiency our institutions are trying to remedy.
I know this selective listening can apply to music and the arts.
In my teenage years, I was hearing plenty of rock music, but the words didn’t mean much, including the sad love songs. But once my teenage heart was broken for the first time, all those “I lost my baby and I’m really sad” songs felt like my songs. Only then did I begin to “hear” their meaning.
And how about hearing voices of what might be a divine spirit?
I’d gone to church occasionally growing up, but I don’t remember a single moment when something was said that meant anything to me. In college, I took it for granted that such perspectives were outdated and irrelevant. I remember being stopped by an evangelistic student on the UCSB campus who wanted to convince me I needed Jesus. The more we talked, the more I was convinced I had no interest in “knowing Jesus” as he wanted me to. The intentional gap in my attention could have been labeled “religion.”
But after an unexpected personal, mystical experience, I became fascinated with the spiritual experiences of others. That became a focus of my attention.
Over time, I found many people of faith who intrigued me. They weren’t trying to convert me or make me into something I didn’t want to be. They were humble, caring people, continuously open to spiritual insight and serving the world.
One thing led to another, and I ended up in seminary, followed by 40 years of ministry. I had my own experiences of “hearing” or sensing a voice addressing me, comforting me, and challenging me. It was not some deep male voice of tight-fisted judgement, but more like a novel idea, a prompting, a whisper.
Movies have captured it well. In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.” No one else can hear it, but his curiosity sets him on a journey of self-discovery. In the end, the journey is not about baseball but about reconciliation with his father. Or when Luke Skywalker hears Obi-wan Kenobi saying “Trust the Force Luke” – it’s a voice he can choose to follow or not. But he’s learned to trust it, because he knows it will lead him to serving the higher good.
Over the years, I’ve never tired of hearing stories from ordinary people who have “heard” in subtle ways a divine voice or prompting. In time, I went beyond my initial boundaries to listen to what people of other spiritual traditions “hear,” which led to my interfaith work. It’s been endlessly fascinating.
I think of one older woman in a congregation I served. Despite many hardships in her life, she was always smiling and ready to help others. One day when she came by my office, I asked what her secret was.
“I was raised Catholic,” she said. “At age 7 I decided I didn’t need to go through a priest anymore but could speak to God directly whenever I wanted. And I’ve been doing that every since.”
“Did you tell any adults?” I asked.
“No, there was no need,” she said.
So at that early age she began tuning in as best she could. Seeing the way she lives her life and the joy in her face, it was clear to me she had been “hearing” something valuable for many years.
It’s possible she was wearing hearing aids from Costco when we had the conversation. Who cares? It wasn’t her hearing that mattered. It’s how she had learned to focus her attention. And listen.
(Image: “Woman With a Lute By the Window,” Vermeer)